The Anglo-Irish Ascendancy had a keen eye for the price of an acre…



From Dublin Review of Books:

The Anglo-Irish Ascendancy were an odd mixture of the soft-headed and the hard-nosed. If they could be a dreamy, spook-ridden, eccentric bunch, they also had a keen eye for the price of an acre or the cost of a domestic servant. Washed up by history and finally dispossessed by their own state, their more progressive wing could nevertheless see themselves as in the van of modernity, held back by a bunch of benighted papists. WB Yeats, visionary and man of affairs, is a case in point. If he was fascinated by the way leprechauns spin on their pointed hats (though only in the northeastern counties, as he solemnly notes), he was also a tough-minded organiser and political activist, a canny cultural commissar with (as his father once remarked) the virtues of the analytical mind. He was a man as much at ease in a committee as he was at a seance. There was a garage with a motor car at the foot of his ancient tower. Seeing themselves as an avant garde meant among other things that the Anglo-Irish produced some magnificent champions of the common people. For the most part, however, the only wearing of the green with which they were acquainted was a matter of wellies. There is more than a touch of green wellies about Selina Guinness’s highly accomplished memoir.

These two aspects of the Ascendancy converge in the image of the Big House. Houses for the middle classes are just places to live in, but for the gentry they are evolving organisms, repositories of cherished memories, full of treasured knick-knacks and wrinkled old retainers, as much living subjects as physical sites. Individuals come and go, but the grange or manor house lives on, more like a transnational corporation than a bungalow. If this corporate form of existence sets its face against middle class individualism, it is equally averse to what one might call the Byronic style of aristocracy – the swaggering, anarchic, wild-old-wicked-man syndrome, for which nobility of spirit means not giving a toss for anyone else. Like a slightly dotty but much-loved relative, the house has its own quirky ways, its distinctive aura and personality. One almost expects to encounter it settled on one of its own sofas, granny glasses perched on its nose, knitting and crooning. It is a symbol not in the neo-Platonic sense of a cryptic intimation of eternity, but in the sense of a chunk of the material world traced through with human values and meanings, a spot where spiritual and material realms meet and even the most mundane objects are resonant of more than themselves. The stuffed crocodile by the door of Selina Guinness’s title, long used in her family home as a kind of mailbox, is exemplary of this. The body of the house incarnates a communal soul and a shared history, so that the invisible is everywhere woven into the visible, the past palpably alive in the decrepit armchairs and herbaceous borders of the present. Such houses are more sacred texts than bricks and mortar.

Yet they are, of course, bricks and mortar too, sometimes ruinously expensive to maintain. Big Houses may mean culture and civility, but they are also at the nub of a whole system of property, labour and production. As the Marxists would say in their tiresomely mechanistic fashion, they are base and superstructure together. As such, they engage the hard-headed qualities of the gentry as well as its more high-minded impulses. The latter can also serve to draw a decorous veil over the former. If one’s tenants are sorely exploited, it is, after all, in the name of an age-old tradition and a spiritual ideal.

The Crocodile By the Door is the tale of how a scion of the lower gentry came into possession of Tibradden, a house and farm in the Dublin mountains which belonged to her family and where she lived for a while as a child; and though the story is deeply in love with the local landscape and thronged with tender reminiscences, it is also remarkably well-versed in questions of land values, inheritance tax, rezoning, title deeds and fee-farm grants. It is true that the author needs to bone up on such stuff in order to restore the house and farm, but she appears to take to it like a duck to water. Guinness may have inherited the pieties and sentiments of her ancestors, but the spirit of enterprise that drove them to render their compatriots legless and rentless still courses in her veins.

“To the Manor Born”, Terry Eagleton, Dublin Review of Books